Origins of the Displacer Beast and Rust Monster

Courtesy of Jim Ward‘s “Pharoah’s Tomb”, from The Dungeoneer v.1, no.4 (March 1977), our last session of the White Sandbox campaign saw our heroes fighting displacer beasts and rust monsters, as well as encountering the god Anubis from Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes. This was deeply pleasing to me because:

  • As a kid I owned one of the plastic toys that inspired the rust monster, before I ever played D&D. Like many kids I remember wondering “what the hell is this thing?”. When I later saw it in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide cartoon, it was a mind-blowing transmedia experience. Here is Gygax on the genesis of the rust monster:

When we were all playing CHAINMAIL Fantasy Supplement Miniatures on the sand table in my basement, finding figurines for monsters was a priority. Of course the fantasy miniatures field was nil then. In my search I came upon the bag of monsters in a dime store, brought them home, and various persons involved suggested what they might be. Eventually we created names and stats for all, and so the resemblance is no coincidence at all :)

In Dragon Magazine Issue #88 (1984) he expanded further:

When I picked up a bag of plastic monsters made in Hong Kong at the local dime store to add to the sand table array … there was the figurine that looked rather like a lobster with a propeller on its tail … nothing very fearsome came to mind … Then inspiration struck me. It was a Rust Monster.

  • I’ve long been interested in the literary origins of D&D monsters, especially since it gives me another reason to re-read the books of Appendix N. I’ve known for a while the common wisdom that the displacer beast is inspired by Couerl from A.E. Van Vogt’s 1939 short story “Black Destroyer”, which later became the first chapter of the novel Voyage of the Space Beagle:

His great forelegs twitched with a shuddering movement that arched every razor-sharp claw. The thick tentacles that grew from his shoulders undulated tautly. He twisted his great cat head from side to side, while the hairlike tendrils that formed each ear vibrated frantically, testing every vagrant breeze, every throb in the ether… Coeurl crouched, an enormous catlike figure silhouetted against the dim, reddish sky line, like a distorted etching of a black tiger in a shadow world.

Trampier’s illustration in the AD&D monster manual is pretty faithful to this description:


Monster Manual, 1977

Previous depictions of Couerl looked less like either Van Vogt’s description or the AD&D displacer beast:

Astounding, 1939

Recently, David Thiel’s excellent blog Thiel-a-vision alerted me to another depiction that’s more like Trampier’s:

Worlds Unknown, 1973

Did Trampier base his drawing on the Van Vogt story or the Marvel comic? Original D&D artist Greg Bell is certainly known to have looked to comic books for his visual sources: the Acaeum notes that the cover of OD&D’s Men and Magic “was “inspired by” (*cough*) artwork by Dan Adkins, originally found in Doc Strange comic #167, Apr 1968, on page 11″:

And over at Dragonsfoot, OculusOrbis notes that the OSR-famous “Fight On!” images come from writer/artist Jim Steranko’s SHIELD story in Strange Tales #167, page 6, panel 1 :

See this Grognardia post for another example.

I’m hoping that one of my fellow Mules will pull a copy of Worlds Unknown #5 from their inexhaustible store of comics lore to resolve this issue. Right now my money is on Tramp having read the original story, as one of Van Vogt’s characters observes of Couerl that:

…the tentacles end in suction cups. Provided the nervous system is complex enough, he could with training operate any machine.

So the things that I always assumed were horny growths on the tentacles (maybe they’re even described that way in the original Monster Manual? certainly 4E says they’re barbs), which are visible in Tramp’s drawing but not in the Marvel comics cover, are actually suction-cup manipulators! I really wish I’d done this research prior to Saturday’s game, and will have to content myself with storing up descriptions of absurd and grisly things you can do with tentacle-suckers that appear to be 3′ away from their real position until next time I get to use them in a game – which, at the current rate of displacer-beast appearances in my campaigns, will likely be 2041.

15 Responses to “Origins of the Displacer Beast and Rust Monster”

  1. January 10, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    I had the plastic rust monster when I was a kid. I also had a plastic bulette, came in the same bag with a bunch of dinosaurs. Never knew what they were until years later when I actually got a monster manual. I expect the bulette thus had the same origins as the rust monster.

  2. January 10, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    Yes, Tim Kask [talks about the bulette at Dragonsfoot]:
    “I created it for two reasons. First and foremost? I had an empty page in that issue of The Dragon because a full-page ad either cancelled or was late, and I had to go to press. Now Gary and I had had several talks about creating monsters, and he had frequently encouraged me to let my imagination run wild. The umber hulk and the rust monster were fabrications (by Gary) to “explain” two plastic monsters from a bag of weird critters from the dime store that Gary had found and used in Greyhawk. (Now it would be a Dollar Store.) There was still had one that had not been taxonomically identified and defined yet that intrigued me; they called it the “bullet”. I frogged-up the name a bit. At this same time, SNL was hitting it’s stride and had become a cultural phenomenon, and the Jaws movies were just hitting their stride, and SNL ran with the “landshark” parody. People were going around going “Landshark” “Candygram” all the time as they became a temporary buzzword. No doubt influenced by some really good ” Oz oil” that was going around (statute of limitations is long expired), my excursive mind hooked them together as I imagined what a “real” (in D&D terms “real”) landshark might be. I had probably been watching a PBS program about moles or armadillos. The second reason had to do with Outdoor Adventures (or lack thereof) and a herd of hobbit ponies. But that’s another story…”

    This [thread at the Acaeum] is also informative.

  3. 3 maldoor
    January 10, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    Are you suggesting that the displacer beast could use its combined abilities to throw a sucker punch?

    (sorry. no impulse control)

  4. 4 Naked Samurai
    January 10, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    The Blink Dog/Displacer Beast enmity has to be one of the coolest, weirdest made up animosities in all nerddom gaming.

  5. January 10, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    Excellent work Tavis! I actually believe I also owned one of those Rust Monster toys when I was a kid. Wish I had known then what it was… :)

  6. 6 Pingstanton
    January 10, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    I had that same of cheap plastic monsters, also came with a Bullette (the land shark from AD&D). The rest were basically dinosaurs.

  7. January 11, 2011 at 1:13 am

    Monster Brains posted interior art from the 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction in mid 2009. Luckily I made a note of it at the time, so it was easy to track down.

    Check out the second and third images in this the Monster Brains post for more.

  8. 8 bat
    January 11, 2011 at 3:01 am

    Add another who had the rust monster and bulette plastic pieces before seeing the Monster Manual.

    It is amazing that the transmedia event of us stumbling across this amazing revelation did not lead to the utter collapse of society.

  9. January 11, 2011 at 4:29 am

    I have a suspicion that the Hong Kong plastic toy that Gygax used for the bulette was originally the monster Gabora from Episode 9 of the original “Ultraman” tv show. (http://i3.photobucket.com/albums/y94/biohazard85/Ultraman%20Kaiju/GaboraShieldOnEp9.png)
    Look at that image and I’d say it’s a good contender.

    Makes me wonder what rubber suit monster was the progenitor of the rust monster.

  10. 10 Scott LeMien
    January 11, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Gil Kane creates Displacer beast art. Awesome!

  11. 11 Charlatan
    January 12, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    So the things that I always assumed were horny growths on the tentacles (maybe they’re even described that way in the original Monster Manual? certainly 4E says they’re barbs), which are visible in Tramp’s drawing but not in the Marvel comics cover, are actually suction-cup manipulators!

    Did you see any of the televised business regarding Colossal Squid a while back? It turns out that tentacle barbs and tentacle suction cups aren’t necessarily an either/or proposition.

  12. 12 Charlatan
    January 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    Sorry, a much better (or more disturbing, as will be obvious on clicking) page with images of the terrifying barbed/suckered tentacles of the colossal squid here. I don’t think I could have imagined a more terrifying appendage for the Displace Beast if I tried.

  13. 13 Michael (Gronan) Mornard
    July 23, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    I was there when Tom Champeny pulled the Rust Monster out of the bag… also the Owl Bear.

  14. 14 Jack Colby
    July 27, 2012 at 12:37 am

    Several of the bizarre “dinosaurs” in those 1970’s sets were based on Ultraman kaiju (giant monsters.) If you watch the series you will recognize them. The episode with the “bulette” is interesting because it really does travel by burrowing underground. The Ultraman version also has a nose/head that opens up rather spectacularly though, unlike the D&D monster. But there’s no doubt the plastic figure is based on it once you see the episode. Collectors have nicknamed some of these odd monster figures “Chinasaurs” because the only identifying marks are the “made in China” stamped on their bellies. No one really knows who made them, originally.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2011

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